Being raised in Bakersfield, CA, I’ve always been aware of many of the issues that have plagued the Central Valley since before I was born. In 2014, TIME named Bakersfield as the most illiterate city in the nation . In Kern County, STD rates rise every year and are among the highest in the state, among many other upsetting statistics .
But there was a problem that I wasn’t familiar with: the state of consent and healthy relationships in the Central Valley. Over the past 7 weeks, under the Central Valley Scholars’ Health and Wellness Program, I’ve set out to learn more about what consent and healthy relationships are, what they look like marginalized groups and rural areas, and ultimately what understandings of consent and healthy relationships look like within the Central Valley.
What is Consent and a Healthy Relationship?
When introducing consent, it is important to talk about body autonomy. Body autonomy is defined such that we have a right to control what happens to our body, without outside influences. “No means no” isn’t enough—we must transition to an “Enthusiastic Yes means Yes.” For this, constant communication and reversibility of consent is important to understand and respect in intimate situations. And equally important, is the practice of setting boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others.
How can we set boundaries? It is important to practice setting boundaries as self-care. We must both learn how to say no and respect a “no”. It is important to be firm when setting boundaries and be open when you are uncomfortable. Repeated boundary violation could potentially be the sign of an unhealthy relationship.
Healthy relationships are another important topic of discussion when it comes to consent, but it is harder to define since healthy relationships look different for everyone. In general, it is important that partners express their feelings and set boundaries in order to prevent various types of relationship abuse and violence.
We can’t talk about violations of consent without bringing up rape culture. Rape culture is the idea that currently, society blames victims for instances of sexual violence and normalizes such instances as inevitable and even humorous. In order to reduce violations of consent and get justice for survivors, it is important that we fight back against rape culture by: believing survivors of sexual violence, not victim-blaming, eliminating language and jokes that degrade and objectify people, and ultimately spreading awareness.
A review of existing literature revealed more about the status of consent and healthy relationships within marginalized groups and rural communities. I ultimately found that sexual violence/domestic abuse rates were higher within racial/cultural minorities, college youth, women in rural communities, and queer individuals. Within minority groups, I found that traumatic effects experienced by survivors are made even worse by other societal traumas such as racism, sexism, and poverty (Bryant-Davis et al., 2009). Within the LGBTQ+ community, I found that sexual violence rates are higher and that transgender individuals reported having experienced sexual assault or rape over two times as frequently as cisgender LGBTQ+ individuals (Langenderfer-Magruder et al., 2016). In rural areas, higher rates of sexual violence faced barriers including low funding, a need for more and better-trained personnel, a need for greater outreach in these communities, a need for travel assistance, and distrust of law enforcement that led to ultimately lower rates of reporting incidents to the police (Annan, 2006). 22% of students had experienced sexual assault at college, and rates were even higher for women and gender nonconforming students (Mellins et al., 2017). One article expressed that comprehensive sexual education before college, including more training on how to refuse sex effectively, could prevent sexual assault at the college-age (Santelli et al., 2018).
Community Survey & Data Analysis
The purpose of my survey and data analysis was to learn more about the understandings of consent and healthy relationships by those in the Central Valley and what the needs are for youth. I hypothesized that understandings of sexual violence and healthy relationships will be low in the Central Valley, and made worse by conditions such as poverty and racism. In addition to this, I believed that the primary cause of sexual assault rates in youth is the lack of adequate sexual education.
With the help of community organizations, I designed and dispersed a 38-question research survey with the hopes of learning more about understandings of consent and healthy relationships within the Central Valley. There were 83 responses, with the average age of participants being 19.9 years. Bakersfield and Fresno were the most common cities represented, with a variety of other cities also being represented. In addition to this, a variety of gender identities and sexualities were represented, with participants having the option to add a response if none of the available options suited to them. Most participants came from public high schools and had a household income below $40,000. The most common timing of sex education for participants was around middle school and freshman year, with the majority of participants having one lesson to a week of sex ed lessons.
The key set of results that I’ll focus on in this article are regarding sex education. Despite California being one of the 8 states that legally requires consent be taught in sex education, half of the participants said that it was not taught, and a majority expressed that concepts of healthy relationships were also not taught in sex ed. A majority of participants said that sex ed was not inclusive and 38.6% even believed that their sex ed teacher may have been biased in a way that harmed student learning. Ultimately, a majority (85.5%) of participants said that their classmates did not take sex ed seriously.
Implications and Looking forward
The data shows that sex ed has failed Central Valley students, especially in regards to consent education. Moving forward, sexual education needs to be inclusive and especially focus on creating a consent culture, in which being cognizant of consent in every aspect of our lives is normalized. A culture of consent is one that normalizes asking for consent and accepting the response in our daily lives.
What can we do to create a consent culture? We must:
Normalizing asking for consent and accepting response
Set and respect boundaries
Teach consent early to children and model it
Redefine consent as enthusiastic, affirmative, and revocable
Integrate consent into everyday actions
Based on the data collected, I believe an effective outreach project is one with the goal of picking up where sex ed has left off and creating a consent culture, while considering things like sustainability, reach, and flexibility. A project that I hope to pursue is managing a social media page, @consentconnection on Instagram, whereby recruiting peers I aim to spread information about these topics and start a conversation.
But what happens to the state of consent and healthy relationships in the Central Valley isn’t just up to me. It’s up to you too:
“Consent culture starts with small choices we make in our daily lives.” - Sabel Flynn, CSON ‘21
The following are the handles of some helpful Instagram pages that I have learned a lot from throughout this journey and that I highly recommend for those looking to learn more:
@uccrj - UC Coalition for Reproductive Justice
Some websites I recommend:
Please take this quiz to access the voting link:
Literature Review References
Annan S. L. (2006). Sexual violence in rural areas: a review of the literature. Family &
community health, 29(3), 164–168. https://doi.org/10.1097/00003727-200607000-00003
Bryant-Davis, T., Chung, H., Tillman, S., & Belcourt, A. (2009). From the margins to the center:
ethnic minority women and the mental health effects of sexual assault. Trauma, violence
& abuse, 10(4), 330–357. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838009339755
Langenderfer-Magruder, L., Walls, N. E., Kattari, S. K., Whitfield, D. L., & Ramos, D. (2016).
Sexual Victimization and Subsequent Police Reporting by Gender Identity Among
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Adults. Violence and victims, 31(2), 320–
Mellins, C. A., Walsh, K., Sarvet, A. L., Wall, M., Gilbert, L., Santelli, J. S., Thompson, M.,
Wilson, P. A., Khan, S., Benson, S., Bah, K., Kaufman, K. A., Reardon, L., & Hirsch, J. S.
(2017). Sexual assault incidents among college undergraduates: Prevalence and factors
associated with risk. PloS one, 12(11), e0186471.
Santelli, J. S., Grilo, S. A., Choo, T. H., Diaz, G., Walsh, K., Wall, M., Hirsch, J. S., Wilson, P. A.,
Gilbert, L., Khan, S., & Mellins, C. A. (2018). Does sex education before college protect
students from sexual assault in college?. PloS one, 13(11), e0205951.